A war against China or Russia is not inevitable, but it will be averted only if the United States and its allies maintain a credible deterrent. In this competition, both China and Russia have placed a particular emphasis on developing their undersea forces. Both recognize the asymmetric advantage of undersea platforms in gaining sea control and projecting power far from their shores. Today, the United States maintains undersea dominance, but that dominance is threatened. To maintain its superior position, the U.S. Navy must continue to build capability and capacity and continue to evolve. One area that must evolve for U.S. undersea forces is command and control (C2).
C2 in the undersea domain is best executed at the theater level by a single commander. A theater undersea warfare commander (TUSWC), should exercise tactical control of forces fighting in and from the undersea domain across the joint operating area for the following reasons:
1. Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) is a team sport requiring unity of command to successfully engage modern, quiet submarines.
2. China and Russia operate strategic and general-purpose submarines that cross the artificial Unified Command Plan boundaries at will. This, coupled with the inherent stealth of Chinese and Russian submarines, make traditional C2 challenging to execute.
3. C2 should be tailored toward the mission—the mission determines C2, not the other way around. In the early stages of a conflict with China or Russia, the focus will be on enabling all-domain access, as both nations have developed robust systems to keep U.S. forces clear of their near waters.
4. U.S. and allied submarines and unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) bring to bear multimission capabilities well beyond ASW, including strike, surface warfare, naval special warfare, mining, subsea seabed warfare, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).
5. Including strategic ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) into the planning and C2 of conventional ASW is critical to keeping the survivable leg of the nuclear deterrent force secure and undetected. Survivable, strategic deterrent assets also underwrite conventional force missions, enabling their enhanced effectiveness.
Neither fleet maritime operations centers (MOCs) nor carrier strike groups (CSGs) are well positioned to exercise C2 of undersea forces, as they are optimized for a different fight—one on the surface and above the water, with a mixture of air-to-surface or surface-to-surface weapon systems that are not based on the inherent stealth of undersea forces. In contrast, U.S. undersea forces have been engaged in a transformation over the past several years to unify the C2 of undersea forces across theater boundaries, with the most success being realized in the European theater under the leadership of commander, Naval Forces Europe.
This transformation, however, has been met with resistance from those accustomed to the numbered fleet model of C2. The numbered fleet model focuses on peacetime presence and campaigning missions and on the other end of the spectrum of conflict—full-scale combat with CSGs and expeditionary strike groups (ESGs). Missing in this approach are the stealth forces with the speed, access, and payload to seize the initiative early to restore deterrence.
China is rapidly fielding a force of capable submarines, including the Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine, the Shang-class fast-attack submarine, and the Yuan-class diesel submarine with air-independent propulsion. With the Jin class, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will be able to maintain continuous at-sea deterrence capable of striking targets within the continental United States.1 With the Shang and Yuan classes, the PLAN fields the YJ-18 antiship cruise missile, meant to supplement China’s antiship ballistic missiles in driving its “first defensive layer” out to 1,000 nautical miles (nm) from the Chinese mainland, denying access to U.S. and allied maritime forces.2
During the Cold War, Russia relied extensively on submarines as capital ships, holding the larger U.S. fleet at risk. This era of great power competition is no different. Russia has modernized its strategic nuclear deterrent with the Borei-class ballistic-missile submarine equipped with 16 missile tubes for the 8,300-kilometer-range
SS-N-32 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile. In the Severodvinsk class, the Russian Navy has a multipurpose submarine capable of launching land-attack cruise missiles and a wide range of advanced cruise missiles to destroy U.S. and allied shipping.3
Russia intends to use submarines and undersea infrastructure to maintain its strategic deterrent using a bastion defense strategy in the near waters, with a combination of fixed-sensor installations and ASW forces comprised of submarines, surface ships, and aircraft. With the Severodvinsk class and the legacy Oscar-class cruise-missile submarine, the Russian Navy will establish a layered defense, with the forward defense layer about 1,000 nm from the Russian frontier, with the intention of “blunting the effects of U.S. and allied land-attack cruise missiles by attacking their launching platforms.”4
ASW Is a Team Sport
The capabilities and numbers of submarines require unity of command to close the kill chain. The ASW kill chain is like most, with find, fix, and finish phases. The find phase is executed via wide-area search using a combination of fixed surveillance systems, mobile UQQ-2 Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) ships, and other means. These assets cue teams of submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, ships, and helicopters to shrink the area of uncertainty to pinpoint a submarine within the search capabilities of heavyweight or lightweight torpedoes in the finish phase. This kill chain incorporates each of these elements to compensate for both the adversary’s capabilities and the opaqueness of the ocean environment. No one asset can complete the ASW mission at the operational level. It takes the team seamlessly operating from the different domains to be effective in the underwater domain.
C2 Boundaries Are Meaningless to U.S. Competitors
Chinese and Russian strategic and general-purpose submarines will cross artificial U.S. C2 boundaries at will. The inherent stealth of submarines makes traditional C2 challenging to execute, particularly as rules of engagement change as the conflict escalates. The general rule of ASW is “if in contact, stay in contact.” Transitions and turnovers are possible, but they need to be minimized as cross-domain communication is problematic and will be further challenged in the communication-degraded environment that one would expect in a great power war. It will not be possible to transition C2 arrangements and/or turn over prosecution assets “on the fly” as the adversary maneuvers into its strategic position.
C2 Should Be Tailored Toward the Mission
In the early stages of a conflict, the focus will be enabling all-domain access, as both China and Russia have developed robust systems to keep U.S. forces clear of their near waters. China’s DF-21 and soon to be fielded DF-26 antiship ballistic missiles can hold U.S. forces at risk and impair freedom of movement. The stealth forces of the United States, including space, cyber, fifth-generation aircraft, and the undersea force of submarines and UUVs, will be called on to roll back these capabilities. The C2 for undersea forces must support this mission until conditions allow for more traditional C2 structures to be imposed with the joint force’s arrival.
Undersea Force Multimission Capabilities
Submarines and UUVs are multimission platforms. Submarines are the most capable ASW platform in the U.S. arsenal. Against adversaries, U.S. submarines and UUVs will be positioned to conduct strike and surface warfare to enable all-domain access for the joint force. When called on, they will deliver SEALs covertly to attack adversary vulnerabilities, position mines in critical chokepoints, and hold military infrastructure at risk. Submarines and UUVs greatly expand the joint force commander’s options throughout the spectrum of conflict.
Integrating SSBN Operations
The theater undersea warfare commander must be aware of U.S. SSBN operations to deconflict theater-wide ASW operations. During a conflict with China or Russia, nuclear weapons will play some role as a deterrent, to signal intent, or, in the most extreme scenarios, in an actual exchange. While SSBNs are at sea, their positions are controlled at the highest classification level and communicated only in the most general terms. As conventional forces such as CSGs, ESGs, fast-attack submarines, and other armed forces deploy to the theater of conflict, they undoubtedly will traverse the areas in which U.S. SSBNs are hiding—any potential interactions must be deconflicted and avoided.
Why Not the CSG?
Under the composite warfare commander concept, CSGs conduct ASW under the coordination of the antisubmarine warfare commander (AX). AX is not positioned to command and control the ASW mission outside the CSG local area, let alone the full spectrum of missions encompassed by undersea warfare.
• AX does not have the communication circuits, appropriate classified access, or staff to fuse the wide-area search assets necessary for the find phase of the kill chain for highly capable adversary submarines.
• AX does not have the mission nor is his or her staff organized to track strategically armed submarines or general-purpose submarines as they position themselves for land-attack or seabed missions against allies or the U.S. homeland.
• By their nature, CSGs are held at risk by the antiaccess weapon systems.
• SSBN operational control is delegated from U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska and not through a geographic combatant command under which the CSGs would operate. This mismatch of C2 authorities and the highly classified nature of SSBN operations precludes CSGs from being in position to deconflict interactions between conventional forces and SSBNs.
Why Not the MOC?
U.S. fleet commands and numbered fleets use the MOC concept to integrate and employ CSGs and ESGs. This is effective for executing C2 of surface ships and aircraft and integrating allied and partner efforts in the maritime domain. Unfortunately, the MOC is ill-suited for C2 in the undersea domain.
• The MOC does not currently have the communications circuits and processes to fuse the wide-area search assets necessary for the find phase of the kill chain for highly capable adversary submarines and then to distribute that information to the appropriate platforms to execute the fix and finish parts of the chain.
• MOCs are not currently manned with the subject-matter expertise necessary to employ assets in the challenging acoustic undersea environments and lack the subject-matter expertise to execute C2 of submarines and UUVs far forward conducting strike and surface warfare to enable all-domain access.
• The Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC)/fleet MOC is not positioned to execute C2 in the undersea domain. The Navy, recognizing the challenge of executing C2 over large formations of CSGs and ESGs, has established at least two numbered fleets to execute C2 in each ocean. While necessary in the maritime surface and air domain, this division of the joint operating area for the numbered fleets precludes the effective prosecution of strategic and general-purpose submarines that cross these artificial C2 boundaries at will.
The TUSWC Is The Best Option
The Navy has four TUSWCs: Commander, Submarine Group 7, in Yokosuka, Japan; Commander, Submarine Group 8, in Naples, Italy; Commander, Submarine Force Pacific, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; and Commander, Submarine Group 2, in Norfolk, Virginia. These commands:
• Have a track record in real-world ASW prosecutions against PLAN and Russian Navy submarines and have proven their ability to command and control ASW at the operational level, as evidenced in the most recent Austere Challenge Exercise
• Report to the JFMCC in the early stages of a conflict—this is the appropriate, tailored C2 construct to enable all-domain access and overcome Chinese and Russian long-range missile systems and maritime aircraft
• In reporting to the JFMCC, are positioned to prosecute strategic and general-purpose submarines that cross U.S. C2 boundaries, maintaining contact until the rules of engagement support their destruction
• Have the expertise to employ U.S. and allied submarines and UUVs in strike, surface warfare, naval special warfare, mining, seabed warfare, and ISR
• Are equipped with the requisite C4I systems to effectively communicate with undersea forces
• Have the command relationships to integrate SSBN operations with conventional ASW, keeping U.S. SSBNs secure from fratricide
The undersea enterprise continues to mature the TUSWC concept through exercises and war games, such as the Black Widow Tactical Development Exercise and geographic combatant command exercises Vigilant Shield, Pacific Sentry, and Global Thunder. The undersea domain has unique challenges and provides unique opportunities. The TUSWC is the best fit to manage these challenges and exploit the opportunities in great power competition.
1. Office of Naval Intelligence, “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century” (2015), 17.
2. Office of Naval Intelligence, “The PLA Navy,” 6, 16.
3. Office of Naval Intelligence, “The Russian Navy: A Historic Transition” (2015), 17–18.
4. Office of Naval Intelligence, “The Russian Navy,” 18.
5. VADM Daryl Caudle and RADM Blake Converse, USN, “Commander’s Intent 3.0 2020 Edition” (2020), 13